Snowpiercer Episode 1 was a mix of gorgeous imagery and human brutality onboard the perpetually moving train that’s Hell for some and Heaven for others who can afford it.
Has there ever been a more appropriate time to explore class systems and inequity? At a time when economies are struggling, and entire segments of our population are out of work, the world of Snowpiercer doesn’t seem that strange. Classicism is rampant, climate change is a real thing, and the rich get richer off the backs of the poor. Just ask those people who dumped stock right before the Stay At Home Orders were given. The only thing fantastic about a train continually circling the Earth is the train itself. Everything else seems eerily plausible. Snowpiercer Episode 1 introduced the main players and a whole lot of additional intrigue as Bong Joon Ho’s feature film gets a serialized treatment. It expanded the world we knew while maintaining important elements from the film.
For those who didn’t see the movie, a brief history lesson at the top of the episode, courtesy of slick animation was provided. The world heated up. We went to war making things worse, and then scientists with more hubris than intelligence accidentally froze it. With no alternative off-planet, a giant train was created to act as humanity’s home. An Ark that would keep humans from going extinct. Separated by an impenetrable class system. The workers have zero control while those who are wealthy hold all the cards. The maker of the train was Wilford Industries, run by an unseen Mr. Wilford. It is a mega-corporation similar to Weyland Industries in the Alien Franchise.
Only those deemed worthy of a ticket are allowed to board. You either pay your way on the train or possess skills Mr. Wilford thinks is necessary. A small portion of the population desperate enough to try to stowaway managed to get on the train and make up the groups known as the Tailies who live in the tail of the train. They have minimal food rations and even fewer opportunities. It is a bleak place.
Detective Andre Layton played brilliantly by Daveed Diggs(Hamilton), is one of those Tailies. As a former police detective, he was neither wealthy enough or essential enough to gain access to a ticket. He lives in the Tail with his adopted son Miles(Jaylin Fletcher), and wife Josie(Katie McGuiness). Life is terrible, and they are constantly talking about rebellion. Layton is a cautious man, and despite all the planning is reluctant to proceed until more information can be gathered. He was involved in an attempt several years ago that ended disastrously. His hesitation is often perceived as traitorous, and when the guards take him, his fellow Tailies think the worst.
Management wants Layton to solve a murder. There are guards everywhere, but none of them have any investigating experience. He is the only cop on board the train. Writing isn’t perfect, I’ll freely admit. Wilford’s arrogance thinking detectives wouldn’t be needed is reasonable, but that not one of the guards is a former detective is suspect. Couple that with some of the more fantastical if improbable train elements and reality has to be suspended just a bit. Quality performances and stunning imagery make up for occasional loose writing. Diggs is incredibly tough, but soulful and Connelly is the picture of cold indifference. Supporting cast members, especially Jinju(Susan Park), who hint at even bigger secrets, are compelling.
Layton doesn’t want to abandon The Tailies to solve the murder. He explains to Connelly’s Melanie Cavill, the head of Hospitality and voice of the train that Wilford needs him more than Layton needs them. The abundance he sees in the garden section of the train disgusts him. In a chilling speech, Melanie explains that balance is necessary. For every strawberry, there needs to be shit. It is a calculated speech made even more impactful by her absolute commitment to what she is saying. She believes it all completely. She is the yen to Old Ivan’s yang. They eerily echo the same sentiment just from different viewpoints.
The Tail is a dirty, brutal place, just like the source material. Snowpiercer Episode 1 does a good job delving into the misery of the Tail. Many give up and even more die in the harsh environment. One of those casualties is Old Ivan. Fans of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul will recognize him as Hector Salamanca(Mark Margolis). His wisdom is depressingly familiar. “Resistance is never futile,” he says. It is when he explains next that although it’s not worthless to fight, reality may be unavoidable. The Tail isn’t a place for hope.
It’s the idea that your station in life is more often than not decided at birth. Snowpiercer Episode 1 doesn’t shy away from the inherent conceit of the film. It is front and center, and it is ugly. It is challenging to escape our past. His suicide is the catalyst for a Tailie attack that solidifies Layton’s involvement in the murder investigation. Ultimately he agrees to help to spare the lives of Pike and the other Tailies. It shows just how powerless they are. Even when those in power need something from the Tailies, they have to sacrifice. For the Tailies, compromise is oppression.
Those in the Tail will have a difficult time getting ahead. Those in the front of the train will continue to be ignorant. In the front of the train, everything is lavish and decadent. There are those who go about their business and only want to provide for their kids. Blissfully unaware of the inner workings of the Tail of the train. Then there are those who think they are entitled to everything they have. Interesting cultural conflicts were explored in a problem with the sauna. European bathers use the sauna nude and sing cultural songs. This offends uber rich Mrs. Folgers. More of those kinds of plot beats should be explored showing how the many nations of the world coexist.
In the course of Layton’s investigation, he runs into his ex-wife Zara(Sheila Vand), who is a suspect in the murder. She left the Tail and now lives in what is called the Chain. The inhabitants live and work in chains. They all function in polyamorous relationships that likely are their form of rebellion. A love conquers all or at least makes life bearable concept. Her dynamic with Layton is another relationship that will be interesting to watch. Layton has been called in because two years prior, there was another murder with a similar MO. A woman was prosecuted and imprisoned in an artificial coma called the Drawers. There is a real possibility of a copycat, or worse yet, the real killer is still free. A delightful Happy Anderson playing the creepy prison keeper Dr. Klimpt is a highlight of this tech-heavy scene.
We now know how the train has continued without Ed Harris’ Mr. Wilford. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and Melanie wears multiple hats. Not only is she the head of Hospitality, but she also drives the train at night. As a white woman who went to MIT, she made the most of her privilege to vault herself into a position of ultimate power. One of the questions that swirl around her are does she know who committed the first murder? Does she know the wrong person was convicted? The other big question is what the “other work” she and Jinju are involved with? We know the Tailies are having fertility issues. Is it possible that it is related?
Snowpiercer Episode 1 offered a hopeful beginning that TNT’s serialized dystopian thriller can capture some of the brilliance of the source material. I was hesitant about how the film would deal with the events of the film. I was even more concerned that there would only be so much to mine from the class warfare of the social structure. Those concerns were met with competency by and large. The early plot beats may be a little clunky, but the big ideas are so strong and performances, so convincing there is a lot to be optimistic about. Occasionally you may be required to overlook flaws, but the best Sci-Fi often requires that. Okay TNT, I’ll buy a ticket for the train- not in the Tail section though. Watch for our coverage every week.
- The physics behind an onboard aquarium are almost impossible. The weight and hydraulic power exerted by the moving water make this a pretty but unlikely addition to the train.
- Are those imprisoned in the drawers aware? If so do they mind being primped by Dr. Klimpt?
- Who else has been imprisoned in the drawers? What minor crimes did they commit? Melanie tells Jinju Nickie has been imprisoned for two years which is the longest ever. The assumption would be minor crimes require minor amounts of time then.
- Could there be a more irritating behavior than wearing a fur coat to The Tail?
- Does Melanie ever sleep?
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.